Monday, April 28, 2008

Cuba Libre!!

Well, we're here....finally, finally, finally! And it was an adventure from start to finish...


So, we left our beautiful Colombian town sadly, but with great excitement, for here was to begin our great Cuban adventure! We took the 12 noon bus from Santa Marta and, as usual in Colombia, it was way overpriced! Especially since the seats were uncomfortable, you don't get fed, and the toilet worked for about half an hour, before giving up the ghost with a splurge of inorganic chemicals and organic mess, making the freezing cold journey even harder to bear because of the all-pervading smell emenating from behind us! That coupled with the fact the driver seemed intent on proving his capabilites as a world rally driver meant that between myself and Alan we got about 10 minutes sleep... So, we arrived at the Venezuelan border none too fresh and none to happy. We had heard all the traveller advice on money - Venezuela's currency system is stuck on a 1997 exchange rate in the banks, meaning that when you withdraw Bolivars directly from the machines, it charges you a rate of 1 Bolivar for 1 Dollar. This is clearly crazy, so you are forced to hit the black markets for your money exchanges, and it's been known to receive 4 Bolivars for 1 Dollar in these circles! We were happy, however, with our exchange of 2.5 for 1, which we got at a Casio de Cambio next to the exit area of Colombia...it meant that our chosen hotel room would cost us about 15 euro instead of 32. Anyway, we then walked across the border no-man's-land to Venezuela, where we got our entry stamp. As we commenced boarding the bus, we were told the guards were going to search every bag on the bus, and that it would take about 2 hours. Five minutes later, a fellow passenger took up a 'collection' of 5 Bolivars per person, to give the guard as a bribe so that they would let us pass unmolested. Standard practice, apparently! So, bribe paid, we got back on our stinky bus, and wove our way through the bleak Venezuelan countryside to Caracas, city of crap....seriously! I have never seen a so called socialist state so plastered with advertising, and so overrun with shanty towns. Unbelievable! Maybe Chavez is working hard in the rest of the country, but Caracas is going to the dogs. Anyway, we got to the bus station by 6am, thanks to our drivers rally experience, and had to wait for the sun to rise in order to head out to get a taxi out to Catia del Mar, the seaside town ten minutes from the airport. We happened to ask a lady in a shop how to get an official taxi, and she very nicely phoned one for us. He arrived and took us to his tinted windowed car, and wove out of the horrible city into an even more horrible 'seaside town' for an extorcionate price...such is the way of the Venezuelan people, we were soon to discover! Our hotel was dingy and horrible, with insects everywhere, and sticky floors. However, it had a tv in the room, and that's all we wanted to while away the evening before heading for the airport in the morning.


So, bright and early the next day, we headed to Caracas airport, and cling-wrapped our bags for safety at the entrance, before attempting to sign in. Nothing so simple! We had to buy our tourist visa for Cuba, which was fine, we knew we had to do it! But then there was the state tax to pay. Fine. OK, so we hadn't enough money for all of this new costings, so I said to the lovely (sarcasm doesn't come across so well in text!) 'lady' we had to go to the banklink, and I'd come back. So we traipsed across the airport to find a banklink, found one, took out the exact amount...meaning, of course, we were getting the 1997 exchange rate on the withdrawal. Then headed back to the stupid cow with cash in hand, to find an equally tourist-friendly man in her place who informed us that we had also to pay airport tax. Oh, sure why would you tell us our total costs all at one time? That would make life EASIER for us! So, with many a scowl and clenching of teeth, I headed BACK to the stupid banklink for more stupid overpriced money for their stupid taxes and charges. After all of this costly endevour, we had enough left for a wee something to eat out the other side, and nothing else. So, we headed through their stupid security (everything in Venezuela was stupid by this stage) airside, and discovered within a couple of hours that our flight was delayed...for 9 hours! Armed with enough cash for a paltry Burger King, we thus reconcoiled ourselves with the airport seats. As an aside, we also thought we might need further cash, but discovered there were no banklinks airside. Sure why would you need THOSE in an area filled with shops, restaurants and other establishments requiring money????

Anyway, I'm not gonna hash over everything yet again, but suffice to say the nine hours dragged by! Luckily, Cubana provided lunch and dinner for us all...at the cheapest restaurant in the airport, but food is food, and who am I to complain? At 10.00 pm, we were all herded upstairs...to an airplane, I presumed, but on reaching the top of the stairs discovered it was to climb onto buses. Our flight had been cancelled, and they were taking us to a hotel. So, on route to said hotel we met with two Turkish men...brothers Oskan and Asmail. Oskan has been living in London some 20 years, and has British citizenship, as well as perfect English. Despite Asmial's little English, he was engaging and friendly, and we had a good chat on our way to the hotel. It turned out to be a lovely hotel in Catia del Mar with a pool and everything...but then again, considering you couldn't leave the hotel environs at any stage, it would want to be! Plus, we only had the clothes we were wearing, so we couldn't exactly dive into the pool! Anyway, it was late, so we all parted ways for some sleep. Next day we arose hoping for news on the flight...nothing. We had breakfast, and watched television all day, before discovering at 4.30pm that they would be collecting everyone from the hotel at 5 bound for the airport. Nice of them to let us know! What would have happened if we hadn't chanced to call reception? Anyway! Headed out for the airport, found a GIGANTIC queue of people awaiting us, and some big frenzy about how half of the flight had been heading to a conference, so they got priority, and a second plane would carry the rest of us. At this stage I didn't even care! We eventually got through the queue in about an hour and a half, to be told that the airport might have to be paid again! Well, this was not happening! Alan had lost the sticker on his ticket so we couldn't prove that we had paid yesterday, and when I explained this to the Cubana man, he shrugged his shoulders. I was forced, then, I admit, to throw away my diplomacy and gritted smile long learned from past struggles with service providers, and curse a little! Sorry Mam....but basically, he then promised we wouldn't have to pay it again! As it turns out, though, nobody had to pay it again, because Cubana had to foot the bill....although this only resulted after all the passangers encamped at the airport tax desk and refused to pay! THEN we finally got through, for a further three hours waiting airside, where we got to know our Turkish friends a little better. When the plane finally arrived to much jubulation at 9.30, we leapt aboard! And it was the smallest plane imaginable...dry ice sufficed for air conditioning, and my knees were practically to my chin onboard. So, in this tiny junk box, freezing cold from the dry ice smoking up around me at all times, we shuddered our way across to Cuba, to land at 3.00 in the morning. When we got there, we decided to sleep in the airport until 7, then head into town together - the two of us, and the Turkish brothers.

On waking cramped and uncomfortable at 7.00, we discovered that my card wouldn't work in any of the machines...credit card, that is, because no debit cards work here anyway. We thought we should try some banks in the city, so Oskan and Asmail offered to pay for the taxi in and then we could pay them back when we got to a bank. So, we headed into the fabulous city of Havana, but I was a bit worried about the money, so didn't take things in as much as I could have. When we arrived, they spotted us breakfast, while we waited for the banks to open at 9. They then minded our bags as we headed off to various banks. Three establishments later, we were told that my credit card, though European, had done business with America, and was therefore useless in Cuba. Brilliant! We thought that maybe we'd be able to withdraw money using my passport and account details, so we stored our bags at Oskan and Asmail's lodgings, and headed out walking. A chance encounter with a creepy old gringo obviously living in Havana a long time sent us to Assistur, the only money-transfer option available between Cuba and other countries. Creepy? Because Alan says he got the distinct impression he was asking if we needed money badly enough to sell me to him for a while.....eeewww!

So, we went to Assistur, and discovered that our nearest transfer option was England, and then only from HSBC bank...they also took a humungous cut of the transfer, as payment. But it was our only hope! We went back to Oskan, and they loaned us enough money for lodgings, and we also bought a bag of bread and some water...feasted for days on that paltry bundle, let me tell you! Anyway, we moved to a Casa Particular in the city, then got on the internet and emailed home, and my cousin Anna in London, asking them to send the full cash that we would need for the whole holiday. This panicked everyone exceedingly...in fact, my mother thought that we'd been taken hostage and I was forced to write the email to get money! Such thoughts averted, they fell to helping us, but we had to wait until the banks opened on the morrow. We met the boys again that night, because they refused to let us wallow in our miserable situation, and kind souls that they are, they wanted us to come out with them! So, we went to Monseratte, a lovely bar next to Hemingway's favourite haunt, but better for the lack of brash tourists pointing cameras up your nostrils, where they shouted us a couple of beers, and we were entertained by a fabulous Cuban band who funked the room up something rotten! Fantastic! Next day, sick to our stomachs with both fear, trepidation and hunger, we went to Assistur to see had any money come through. Nothing! Turns out HSBC wouldn't let Anna send money with them as she is not a member of their bank, so she tried it through her bank, and they said the confirmation would take longer. So, we had another day of this to contend with! Despite everything, we spent our days pacing around Havana, gazing at it's fabulously faded grandeur, and drinking in it's liveliness and musical flavour for free!

Again that night, Oskan and Asmail would not let us wallow, and we went into Viajo, the lively pedestrianised zone above the port, and took in another free show...this time flamenco (though the band also played a weirdly wonderful version of 'Zombie' by the Cranberries!). Next morning, we awoke with the by now familiar trepidation. We awoke in better surroundings, though, because we had moved casa's to Dulce Maria's - a famous casa the same price as our last, but which included breakfast! So we dined heartily on food besides bread - the first to touch our lips in two days - and headed out to the internet to see what news awaited us. On switching on my phone, though, I discovered that my Mam had been in touch with Anna, discovered that the money transfer was NOT going to go through, and had taken it upon herself to drive to Dublin and plead with the British Embassy to help. I might add, at this stage, that the nearest Irish Embassy to Cuba is Mexico...some help to us! Not an hour later, I received another text, confirming that the money would hopefully be awaiting us in the British Embassy. We had to walk, having no money for taxis, and took the 5.5 km in the blistering midday heat out to Verdado, where the Embassies reign. It was a long walk, and I got a little crazed from the sun, but it was all forever worth it when we walked in the door and a lovely lady behind the counter said 'are you Sarah'? Oh what joy!!! She even mentioned that my mother had been very worried about me.....!!! So, we collected our money, joyously and with great relief, and took a taxi back to our Casa. I cannot TELL you how worrying those days were! We couldn't change our flights, so would have been stuck in Cuba with nothing. And if we hadn't met those fantastic brothers, we would have never even have been able to leave the airport! So, you sometimes have to think things happen for a reason...if the flight had not been cancelled, we would not have had the opportunity to make friends with people from the flight, and would have landed in Cuba friendless, moneyless, and alone!

Sadly, our two friends had gone to Trinidad that morning, and we now await their return for the May 1st celebrations in Havana, where we will repay their money and kindness, and take them out for dinner and drinks as a thank you!!

So, to update on life since then, we are LOVING Cuba! It is the most amazing wonderful fantastic country on earth, and we love every second! After Havana, we headed to Vinales, where the tobacco fields cluster amid wonderful limestone cliff faces, and the countryside is so lush and green that it takes your breath away! Staying all the while in Casas - family homes with spare rooms they make available to tourists - we eat hearty breakfast of eggs and fresh fruit in the mornings, and in Vinales, even took dinner made by the family. It certainly improves your Spanish, as nobody speaks English here! Our first day we cycled the countrside, and marvelled at the red earth, tall palm trees, and high cliffs...Alan took a solitary cycle later, and saw a massive snake basking on the road! Already afraid of snakes, this scared the hell out of him! Our second day we took the tourist hop-on-hop-off bus around the area, and met two Irish on holidays here (he from Clare, she from Cork), and had a good laugh spending the day with them! We also visited a smallholding, where we were shown a drying room....a heavily slanted straw hut containing countless tobacco leaves hanging from poles strung lengthways. The owner rolled a cigar for is in front of our very eyes...it was amazing! And he presented it to us free of charge, though we did leave a tip for his kindness! Next day we headed back to Havana, and from there on to our two days of luxury already counted for within our budget....Playas del Este! We headed to an all-inclusive holiday resort on the edge of the ocean, with a HUGE transluscent pool, and a palm-treed, white-sanded, aquamarine sea reached by means of a wooden footbridge over a sandy lagoon. So, we are lapping up the luxury here...eating what we please, and certainly DRINKING what we please, all for the low-low price of 50 euro per day (that's our accommodation, food, drink, EVERYTHING included). So we're happy!

Heading back to Havana tomorrow for the May 1st celebrations. The Plaza de la Revolucion reportadly fills with 1.2 million people, and Fidel addresses the crowd. I think it will be Raul this year, but sure either way, it's an experience I am unwilling to miss! And, yes, I am aware of my hypocrisy in coming from this luxurious havan into a march celebrating workers rights...but I really don't mind! Everything in Cuba is so gloriously distributed, that any money I spent here, in this wonderfully delapidated hotel (which, despite it's appearances, is as plastered with photos of Fidel and Che as anywhere else), will be evenly spread out. Not one shanty town have we seen since our arrival here, and everyone is happy and healthy, and the kids are at school every day. Communism seems to be succeeding far better here than Chavez's socialism in Venezuela, and he would do well to take serious note.....

Internet is very expensive here, so my next blog could be from home, but suffice to say I absolutely adore this country, it's people, and every second I spend in it. Don't worry, I will be back to it before long! It has a very strong pull....

Hasta la victoire siempre!!

1 comment:

Brion Ó said...

Your posts are always so captivating - they keep you hooked until the very end. I can't believe you've been gone for so long.